In previous articles, I have shared my insights on the growing trend to delegate safety downwards into corporate organizations and on the need to build a strong safety management system as a foundation for safety improvement initiatives.

Building on the two articles mentioned above, I want to share some additional insights on how to build a strong and sustainable safety culture within your organization.

First, it is important to stress that there is not something as a “safety culture”. The safety element must be integrated into the overall culture of the organization, and high-performing companies have built a culture of excellence, with safety being one of the building blocks of that culture. Therefore, this article will focus on creating a strong culture with a focus on safety.

A corporate culture can be described as “the way we do things”. One can recognize, analyze and define a corporate culture based on how people act; behave; execute a task; how they react to expected and unexpected circumstances; how they communicate; how they work together, etc.

The best place to measure a corporate safety culture is on the shop floor, where the actual work is done and where accidents can potentially happen. As a result, the only way to assess and measure a corporate safety culture is by spending hours, days and even weeks on the shop floor, amongst the operators and the contractors when they are performing their day-to-day work.

Building on this, the effectiveness of the safety leadership efforts deployed by management should be measured by the extent to which management successfully drives safe behavior and safe practices at shop floor level. My experience is that in many organizations there is substantial potential for improvement in how management teams tackle this challenge.

Again and again, I am impressed with the level of interest, willingness and motivation I witness at the shop floor to participate in the safety journey of their organization. The majority of the operators and contractors are caring, interested in their safety and the safety of their colleagues, open to a constructive discussion on how to perform a task, and willing to respect procedures and permits. Unfortunately, many companies do not see this potential, and fail to integrate “the shop floor” into their safety journey. Safety is managed for the shop floor, not with the shop floor.

The “culture” of our operators and our contractors is highly influenced by what they believe, what they think, what they feel and what they know about safety.

If they feel and truly believe that they can play an active role in managing safety, the majority of them will. However, in my work, I still meet many shop-floor people who have the perception (often substantiated with stories and examples, so sometimes it is the actual truth) that their organization’s real priority is production, and that they are expected (sometimes also told) to compromise safety in order to reach production quotas. Even if this feeling is only a perception, people will not feel comfortable to stop unsafe work or question certain unsafe practices, and people might even disconnect from the safety efforts that are implemented. The “production is the real priority” perception will be a major barrier for operators and contractors to become engaged in safety in a pro-active manner. Management will have to recognize this issue, and will have to act.

I must admit it is sometimes more difficult to inform managers about this reality and to convince them to act than it is to convince shop floor people to become engaged in safety. When I say management must act, I mean that managers will have to communicate more, they must listen and have an actual dialogue with their people, they need to understand the concerns raised and take them seriously. When ideas and/or concerns are shared, the loop should be closed and feedback should be given. Appropriate and effective safety training efforts need to be implemented and most importantly, managers must be consistent. When unsafe situations or practices are brought up, when concerns are raised, management must act in a way that proves their commitment to safety. That is how they can prove that their safety message is real and from the heart. People will recognize the authenticity of the message and react to it by providing trust, support and engagement.

A second pillar to building a strong safety culture is safety knowledge. Behavior is driven and influenced by knowledge, by information received, by training provided and by experiences shared. In its efforts to build a safety culture, it is critical for an organization to have an effective process for learning and transmitting knowledge. This clearly goes beyond providing general and often one-off training sessions and sharing safety alerts.

If we want our operators and contractors to be involved in our safety efforts, the process for learning and transmitting safety knowledge should involve and reach our operators and contractors on an almost continuous basis. My experience is that there also is substantial room for improvement in this field.

A company’s collective safety knowledge and experiences are stored in its safety management system. For the operational people, the most critical reference documents stored in the management system are risk assessments, safe operating procedures and permits to work.
Operational people should be involved in creating, issuing and/or as a minimum reviewing permits to work and safe working procedures prior to them being launched. For some of them it is even recommendable to be actively involved in preparing and documenting risk assessments.
The documents referred to are reference documents. They contain and provide instructions on how to perform a task in a safe manner and they are created in a controlled environment and with the active participation of people performing the tasks referred to.

Some people will argue that people must often work in unforeseen and changing circumstances, rendering detailed instructions (procedures, permits) useless. I disagree, as even in unforeseen circumstances part of the reality will be “standard” and therefore the procedure/permit in place will still be valid and useful. A second argument is that people who have been involved in analyzing a standard situation and in creating related instructions will be better prepared to perform the same task in a safe manner in non-standard or changing circumstances.

I see a lot of opportunities for companies to build a stronger safety culture by more intensively involving and engaging operational people in building the company’s and/or the site’s safety management system. This process should also be described in the company’s safety management system.

A company that invests in this process gives a clear signal to their operational people that their views and input are valued. This will reinforce the message that safety is a core value and that safety should never be compromised on. Again, operators and contractors will pick up this message and it will strengthen their motivation and willingness to actively participate in the safety journey and to believe the safety message of their management.

Finally, effective safety management requires strong auditing and incident investigation processes. The goal of these processes is to analyze the “as is” situation as a basis for optimization and continuous improvement. Often field auditing and incident investigation is limited to operators and contractors (often the most popular auditees) being audited and/or interviewed on their behavior, with limited attention for what has been done to influence this behavior. Compliance audits will be done too, but again the operational level will hardly be involved in them.

In many organizations, audits are executed on the shop floor, not with and/or for the shop floor. Only in very mature organizations do operators play an active role in auditing the effectiveness of the safety management processes in place (quality and completeness of risk assessments, procedures and permits to work, quality and impact of safety information provided, effectiveness of training initiatives, etc.) and do they participate in the discussions on how these processes can be optimized.

The message brought in this article is that a mature safety culture can only be achieved if management heavily and continuously involves the operational teams in building and documenting, deploying, assessing and optimizing the company’s safety management system and the safe practices that have been defined collectively. When management installs effective two-way processes to share knowledge, information and concerns, operators and contractors are open to this approach. Once managers start to apply the strategy described they will be rewarded with a high level of commitment and involvement from their operational teams, and they will get access to a wealth of knowledge and experience. Most importantly, a culture of mutual trust and respect will be created, and safety will become a real and lived value of the organization.

For questions with respect to safety maturity, safety management systems and/or safety culture, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Siegfried Michiels
Executive Safety Solutions